At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that by encouraging a non-GMO seed supply, we are supporting the restoration of traditional seed breeding and the right of farmers to save and plant their own seeds and grow varieties of their choice. It’s one of our most important principles. But why do we need to restore these traditional farming practices in the first place? One important reason is that some of agriculture’s biggest corporations use patents to control how farmers grow crops.
What are Patents?
Patents are a form of intellectual property rights. In most countries, an inventor who creates a novel product, material, or process may apply for a patent by thoroughly describing their invention, usually with the help of a patent lawyer. Once a patent has been awarded, other people cannot make or sell the same invention until the patent expires.
A patent is different from a trademark—those protect words, phrases, and symbols that indicate the source of goods and distinguish them from others. It is also different from a copyright—those protect certain forms of creative works and expressed ideas.
What Do Patents Have to Do with GMOs?
It is legally possible to patent plants in many countries, including the United States and Canada. Initially, this protected the farmers who create new varieties of crops using traditional cross-breeding methods. If you’ve ever had a Cuties clementine orange or a Cotton Candy grape, you’ve eaten patented non-GMO fruit. Even Honeycrisp apples were patented until the patent expired about a decade ago.
Since the advent of GMOs—plants, animals, microorganisms or other organisms whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering—this same law has permitted chemical companies to patent their GMOs. While chemical companies tell consumers and regulators that their GMOs are the same as conventional crops, they simultaneously tell the patent office that their genetically engineered crops are unique enough to deserve a patent.
It is important to understand that chemical agriculture companies such as Syngenta and Dow do not simply hold plant patents on the finished crop or its seed, but in many cases they hold utility patents as well. They are able to patent specific genes and the methods for altering those genes. They also hold patents on, for example, the Roundup that goes hand-in-hand with Roundup-ready crops. These corporations, therefore, often possess ownership over the entire process of growing food.
The introduction of GMOs expedited the transformation of food from shared resource to patented property. A couple years ago, a scant seven corporations controlled the majority of the global seed market.
Today, following the Dow-Dupont and Bayer-Monsanto mergers, just three companies control about 60 percent of the world’s seed supply.
This imbalance of power is even more pronounced in the ownership of high-risk commodity crops. For example, more than 80 percent of the global corn supply is owned by the very biggest chemical companies. This gives those corporations a disproportionate and even dangerous amount of power over how our food is grown, studied, and regulated.
But What about Patents on Non-GMO Seeds?
Non-GMO seeds can be patented too. The key differences are the number of patents and the degree to which those patents impact large-scale agriculture. Some of the most commonly-patented non-GMO plants are actually flowers, not food. Meanwhile, some GMO-producing corporations hold more than thousands of patents (search here to explore these patents), and they hold them on major commodity crops such as soy and corn.
Do we really want to live in a world where we depend on just a couple companies for the whole world’s seed supply?
At the Non-GMO Project, we do not. We do, however, want to live in a world where individual farmers have the power to collect, crossbreed, and save their own seeds.